East Coasters Unprepared For Earthquake

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Tuesday's earthquake demonstrated East Coast residents were not prepared. When the ground started shaking, many evacuated buildings. But in California, where quakes are common, disaster preparedness officials say that's just about the worst thing you can do.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: Along the East Coast, engineers are inspecting building for damage after yesterday's 5.8 magnitude earthquake. Here in Washington, schools were closed, along with a few government offices.

Yesterday's quake demonstrated a few things. First, although rare, earthquakes do strike the East Coast and second, when they do, many people aren't sure what to do.

NPR's Jeff Brady reports that authorities could look west for guidance on how to prepare people for the next quake.

JEFF BRADY: When the ground started shaking, a lot of people did what probate judge John Martinelli did at the City Hall in Providence, Rhode Island.

JOHN MARTINELLI: Desks were moving and the building was visibly moving, so we all got out of there.

BRADY: If a building seems like it might be unsafe, evacuating is a natural reaction, but Kelly Huston says, in an earthquake, that's the wrong reaction. He's an assistant secretary with the California Emergency Management Agency.

KELLY HUSTON: So think about it. If the building's starting to shake and you go running out the front door, that big, brick fa´┐Żade is throwing bricks off the building. You're going to get hit by one of those bricks or, even worse, you may get hit by a huge shard of glass from a plate glass window that's ruptured. So evacuating is actually one of the most unsafe things you can do in an earthquake.

BRADY: Huston says his office has echoed one message over and over to residents in California where earthquakes are common. Drop, cover and hold on.

HUSTON: When you feel the ground shaking, the first thing you should do is drop to the ground, cover your head or go under something sturdy and hold on there until the shaking stops.

BRADY: Huston says the good news about Tuesday's quake is that it was big enough to get people's attention, but not so big that it did major damage. He says quakes like this become teachable moments because they prompt people to think about what they will do when the next earthquake hits.

There are some other lessons to be taken from this earthquake; for example, having a plan in case cell phones don't work. A lot of customers found their service was down for hours as circuits were overwhelmed with calls.

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate says this was a problem for his family Tuesday.

CRAIG FUGATE: My wife and mother-in-law were here in the District. They were at a tourist attraction.

BRADY: Like most everyone else, Fugate's wife couldn't call to say she was OK, so she sent him a text message.

FUGATE: Then I turned around and put an update on our Facebook page to let our family know across the area that she and my mother-in-law were OK.

BRADY: Fugate says that was his family's backup plan for communicating with each other in case cell phones didn't work, but some mobile phone customers say it was difficult to even get text messages through.

Emergency preparedness officials say the good thing about text messages is most services will try to send the message multiple times, so even if the network is busy the first time, the text likely will go through on a subsequent attempt.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

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